A Look Back - Trans-Am Championship 2002

It was the last year the Trans-Am Series ran under the stewardship of the Panoz Sanchez Group. The Series had been taken over by Ralph Sanchez in previous years but Sanchez’s failing health brought it to the front porch of Don Panoz’s new operation, the Panoz Motorsport Group. I recall sitting in a meeting in Miami and hearing Scott Atherton describe the event as “like someone leaving an infant in a basket at your door.”

The Panoz Sanchez Group did a good job of running the Series, though it was obvious the shine was not as bright as it once was. At the helm of the day-to-day operations was Dennis Huth. My personal opinion was that Dennis had grand ideas but totally misread the competitors and what made Trans-Am tick.

The last race in 2002 took place at Virginia International Raceway (VIR). It was a fitting venue for Trans-Am. There was a certain amount of nostalgia that went along with the track and suited the Trans-Am Series of 2002. When the checkered flag fell, together with the blessing of the SCCA, the Panoz Sanchez Group turned the Trans-Am Series marketing keys over to Paul Gentilozzi.

The following year when the Series arrived in Denver, Gentilozzi unveiled his plans for the Series and a program called Motorock. Motorock was designed to pair racing and entertainment into one big promotional package. The kickoff featured Elton John in Miami and honestly, it was spectacular. And though it continued the following year, for whatever the reason, the idea never took hold. To my mind, it was a good idea and I felt Gentilozzi was the right guy to get it done. But even Gentilozzi’s pairing with the Champ Car Series was never enough to get Motorock off the ground or return Trans-Am back to its rightful place in North American racing.

Perhaps though, all is not lost. There’s a new venture pushing the Trans-Am Series again for 2009. But for now, I want to look back on 2002 for the great year it was. No, it wasn’t the days of Tommy Kendall going 11 for 11. But it was damn good racing. It was big American iron and it was guys that knew how to get up on the wheel and literally wrestle their way to the front. It was good stuff.

Even in 2002, you knew you were watching a race Series worthy of all the names that had passed through on their way to establishing championships in literally every form of road racing. And believe me, the list of names was THE who’s who in racing. Trans-Am ruled. Period.

The 2002 Championship was won by Boris Said in the ACS Express Racing Ford Mustang. In his final start of the year, Said, who had made his first 11 starts of the campaign behind the wheel of a Panoz Esperante, strapped himself into a Ford Mustang and brought Ford the 100th race victory of its storied Trans-Am racing program in the season finale at Virginia International Raceway.

It was also Said’s first championship. He did it on the strength of eight victories and 11 podium finishes in 12 starts. He won the final five races in a row and became only the third driver in the 37-year history of the Trans-Am Series to win as many as eight races in a season, as well as the first to do it in a season of 12 or fewer events.

“I’ve never raced for a championship before,” Said commented after accepting $100,000 and the BFGoodrich Tires Cup from Herb Johnson, director of motorsports for BFGoodrich. “But to me, this is not as big a deal as it is to the ACS Express team. For them to have put together a championship effort in just three years of existence says an awful lot about the job [team owners] Mike and Sandy Davis have done.”

Said finished the season with 359 points and a 71-point margin over championship runner-up Butch Leitzinger, of Tom Gloy Racing, who finished second with 288 points. Leitzinger, a veteran road racer in his first year in the Trans-Am Series, was the runaway winner of the $10,000 AmeriSuites Rookie of the Year Award on the strength of three race victories and seven podium finishes in 12 starts.

“This season was wonderful, and I am proud to be part of Tom Gloy Racing,” said Leitzinger, who led the series with five pole positions.  “For the team to bring me up to speed so quickly speaks volumes for their talent and total professionalism.  With the team closing after this race, I am glad that I, as a driver, had the opportunity in my career to drive for such a fine organization.  This has been one the happiest seasons of my driving career.”

Unfortunately, Tom Gloy Racing announced that it would be closing its doors at the conclusion of the 2002 Trans-Am Series season. Leitzinger’s Corvette left VIR in a transporter headed to the garage of the late Paul Newman.

Three-time Trans-Am Series champion Paul Gentilozzi (#3 Johnson Controls/Microchip/ Matrix One/Futaba Jaguar XKR) finished third in the championship with 270 points. It marked his fifth straight season of finishing third or better in the title chase, including championships in 1998, ‘99 and 2001.

“Having competed in this series for 16 years, I understand that you value your championships by the guys that you beat to win the title,” said Gentilozzi, with four podium finishes and eight top-five results on the season. “Mike Davis and Boris Said are a championship team, and they deserve everything they’ve accomplished this season.”

It should also be noted Leitzinger was named AmeriSuites Rookie of the Year, while veteran Randy Ruhlman was selected as the BBS Wheels Most Improved Driver, by vote of his fellow drivers.

Ruhlman finished seventh in the championship  and recorded the first two podium finishes of his career at Trois-Rivieres (second) and Miami (third). He finished eighth or better in nine of the first 10 races of the season.

Behind Said’s seven victories, Panoz claimed the 2002 Trans-Am Series Manufacturers’ Championship with 156 points, 10 ahead of Chevrolet (146).

Johnny Miller gave Rocketsports Racing a three-four finish in the drivers’ championship by taking fourth place with 258 points. He finished sixth or better in 10 of 12 2002 starts, including three podium finishes, and owns a run of 23 top-10 finishes in his past 24 starts, dating to a victory in the 2000 season finale at San Diego.

Stuart Hayner made Revolution Motorsports’ first Trans-Am season a successful one by taking fifth in the championship with 254 points. He finished seventh or better in 10 of 12 starts, including his last nine, with three podium finishes and two pole positions.

Rounding out the top 10 finishers in the championship were Tony Ave of LAC Motorsports, sixth with 229 points; Ruhlman, seventh with 213 points; Tomy Drissi of Rocketsports, eighth with 196 points; Michael Lewis of American Spirit Racing, ninth with 192 points and Simon Gregg of Derhaag Motorsports, 10th with 167 points.

There were also deserving awards presented to Paul Fix, who earned the Westward Tools Tough Team Award for advancing the most combined places over the course of the season; Hayner, who was tabbed in an Internet vote as winner of the Westward Tools Tough Times Award for facing the most adversity during the 2002 campaign; and Rocketsports Racing, for the Team Excellence Award by vote of the Trans-Am Series staff for its support of Trans-Am Series marketing and public relations initiatives.

As I said, this wasn’t by any means the peak or the heyday of Trans-Am racing, but it still had the DNA of days gone by. The drivers weren’t politically correct corporate spokesmen. The racing was done with a fair amount of rubbing and horsepower was the name of the game. Hell, there wasn’t even the slightest hint of “green” in the air.

For me, 2002 Trans-Am still had enough spark that you felt the dream was still alive. Who knows, maybe it still is? Good luck to the Muscle Milk folks as they campaign Trans-Am for 2009.

Quotes and references courtesy Panoz Sanchez Group.

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